Reflections for the II Sunday of Advent - 8th December 2019
Introduction: On the one hand, salvation is God's doing, and we cannot earn His blessings. We are saved by His grace. On the other hand, we must cooperate with God’s grace because God cannot force his bounty upon us. That is why John the Baptist in today’s Gospel summons us to play our essential part by leading lives of repentance, conversion, and renewal, thus preparing the way for the Lord's second coming. We start this process by spiritually preparing for the annual celebration of Christmas, the Lord’s first coming, as we reform and renew our lives by repentance and works of charity.
Gospel exegesis: A prophet on fire with a fiery message: While only two Gospels mention the nativity, all four Gospels introduce Jesus with an account of John the Baptist's ministry (Mark 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-22; John 1:6-9). Matthew puts slightly greater emphasis on John's words than on his action of baptizing. He records a direct quote from John’s preaching: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near." There had been no prophet in Israel for four hundred years. But the people had no hesitation in accepting John as a prophet because he was like a burning torch summoning men to righteousness, a signpost to point men to God, and he had the authority of a man of God. He wore garments of coarse camel hair and a leather belt like the prophets that we read about in Zechariah 13:4 and 2 Kings 1:8. He ate what was available in the rocky desert -- wild honey and roasted grasshoppers – which was permissible according to Leviticus 11. The Jews expected Elijah to return prior to the coming of the Messiah (Mal 4:5). John's clothing of camel's hair and leather belt (2 Kings 1:8)) identified him as the fulfillment of that prophecy, and Jesus Himself affirmed John’s role when he said, "I tell you that Elijah has already come (Mt. 17:12)."
Call to repentance: John's message was not soothing. It cut into the very hearts of men. John denounced evil wherever he found it. He accused Herod of living a loose moral life (14:4), addressed the Scribes and the Pharisees as "brood of vipers" and summoned people to righteousness. His message was "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near" (v. 2), words which Jesus later used to begin his own preaching (4:17), and similar to those the disciples would proclaim (10:7). John justified his call to repentance by announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven was near and that the way to prepare for that day was to repent. Literally, the Greek word for repentance (teshuvá in Hebrew and metánoia) in Greek), means, "to change one's mind and heart," a change of direction or a U-turn. Repentance involves turning around – facing in a new direction -- with a change of heart and a new commitment. Repentance is a daily experience that renews our Baptism. “The repentant person comes before God saying, 'I can't do it myself, God. Kill me and give me new life. You buried me in Baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to a new life.'" Repentance for us is not a one-time action but must take place daily, because preparing for the Lord is a perpetual task.
John’s baptism as the expression of repentance: John’s baptism by water was an external expression of repentance. What he insisted on was the internal expression, a repentance that bore real fruit: a turning from worldly values combined with generosity and love. As a sign of true repentance, John urged the tax collectors to "stop collecting more than what is prescribed," and told the soldiers to “stop extortion and false accusation and remain satisfied with your wages.” In short, John’s message was a call for radical conversion, a demand for self-denial, sacrifice and loving service to others. We may have to put an ax to the roots of the resentments and biases in our hearts. We may have to winnow out our greed and overindulgence, and we may have to burn the chaff of our impatience. Even though John’s preaching was characterized by scathing criticism, his call for reform was described in Luke’s Gospel as "the Good News" because the arrival of the Messiah would initiate a new reign of forgiveness, healing and salvation.
John’s conditions for belonging to the Kingdom of Heaven: The coming Kingdom was John’s main theme. While the Gentile convert, Mark, uses the words “Kingdom of God," Matthew follows the Jewish tradition of avoiding the use of God’s name by using the expression "Kingdom of Heaven.” The Kingdom of God is a God-centered, God-controlled life. John wanted people to experience such a life. Everyone who wants to experience this “reign of God" needs to make a radical change in his or her life. That is the call for repentance. We cannot come under the sovereign rule of God without a change of attitude, a change of heart and a change of lifestyle. John not only denounced men for what they had done, he summoned them to what they ought to do. That is why Matthew emphasized the new life of proper fruit-bearing more than the forgiveness of sins. Bearing good fruit is not just doing good things but also doing them for the right reason.
Life messages: 1) We need to prepare for Christ’s coming by allowing him to be reborn daily in our lives: Advent is the time for us to make this preparation by repenting of our sins, and renewing our lives through prayer, penance, and sharing our blessings with others. Let us remember the oft-repeated words of Alexander Pope: "What does it profit me if Jesus is reborn in thousands of cribs all over the world and not reborn in my heart?" He means that Jesus must be reborn in our heart, during this season of Advent, and every day of our lives, bringing us love, kindness, mercy, forgiveness and the spirit of humble service.
2) We need to accept John’s call for a change of life. John the Baptist, the stern and uncompromising preacher, challenges our superficial attempts at change, demanding that we take a deeper look. Obeying the commandments is a good start, but we must also examine our relationships with others. We must mend ruptures and soothe frictions, face family responsibilities, work honestly, and treat employees justly. Start where you are, John says. Our domestic and social lives must be put in order. John's voice is sober and runs counter to the intoxicating voices around us today. He calls for rectitude and social consciousness. We must abandon our selfish thirst for consumption and, instead, be filled with the expectation of Jesus' coming. Therefore, following John's advice, let us celebrate the memory of this first advent, prepare for Jesus’ new advent in our lives, and wait for his second advent at the end of the world.
3) We need to wait prayerfully for the second advent of Jesus. John’s answer as to how the Jews should wait for the Messiah was that they should wait for the Lord with repentant hearts and reformed lives. We can start by praying from the heart. Let us remember that the Holy Mass is the most powerful of prayers because it transforms us into Eucharistic people, providing the living presence of Jesus in our hearts and his divine life in our souls. Conversion is through Jesus whom we encounter, mainly, through the Holy Scripture and the Sacraments. The Word and the Sacraments are the principal means God uses to give life to men's souls. Daily reconciliation with God, as we ask and receive His pardon for our daily sins and make our monthly sacramental confession, make us strong and enable us to receive more grace in the Eucharist. Let us read the Bible, pray the Rosary daily and fast once a week all year-round, rather than just during Advent and Lent. After all, we sin all year-round, so let us fast also all year-round by controlling our senses. We could take some time before Mass to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and we should practice forgiving those who offend us. Finally, let us share our love with others as selfless and humble service. "Do small things but with great love,” advise St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa). (Fr. Antony Kadavil)